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Vanity Fair: American Rapture
By Craig Unger
Best-selling author and evangelical leader Tim LaHaye has contacts that extend to the White House. That could spell trouble, since his theology espouses a bloody apocalypse in Israel
On a scorching afternoon in May, Tim LaHaye, the 79-year-old co-author of the “Left Behind” series of apocalyptic thrillers, leads several dozen of his acolytes up a long, winding path to a hilltop in the ancient fortress city of Megiddo, Israel. LaHaye is not a household name in the secular world, but in the parallel universe of evangelical Christians he is the ultimate cultural icon. The author or co-author of more than 75 books, LaHaye in 2001 was named the most influential American evangelical leader of the past 25 years by the Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals. With more than 63 million copies of his “Left Behind” novels sold, he is one of the best-selling authors in all of American history. Here, a group of about 90 evangelical Christians who embrace the astonishing theology he espouses have joined him in the Holy Land for the “Walking Where Jesus Walked” tour.
Megiddo, the site of about 20 different civilizations over the last 10,000 years, is among the first stops on our pilgrimage, and, given that LaHaye’s specialty is the apocalypse, it is also one of the most important. Alexander the Great, Saladin, Napoleon, and other renowned warriors all fought great battles here. But if Megiddo is to go down in history as the greatest battlefield on earth, its real test is yet to come. According to the book of Revelation, the hill of Megiddo—better known as Armageddon—will be the site of a cataclysmic battle between the forces of Christ and the Antichrist.
To get a good look at the battlefields of the apocalypse, we take shelter under a makeshift lean-to at the top of the hill. Wearing a floppy hat to protect him from the blazing Israeli sun, LaHaye yields to his colleague Gary Frazier, the tour organizer and founder of the Texas-based Discovery Ministries, Inc., to explain what will happen during the Final Days.
“How many of you have read the ‘Left Behind’ prophecy novels?” asks Frazier.
Almost everyone raises a hand.
“The thing that you must know,” Frazier tells them, “is that the next event on God’s prophetic plan, we believe, is the catching away of the saints in the presence of the Lord. We call it ‘the Rapture.’”
Frazier is referring to a key biblical passage, in the first book of Thessalonians, that says the Lord will “descend from heaven with a shout.… The dead in Christ shall rise first. Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air.”
The words “caught up” are sometimes translated as “raptured.” As a result, adherents cite this as the essential scriptural depiction of the Rapture.
“Christ is going to appear,” Frazier continues. “He is going to call all of his saved, all of his children, home to be with him.”
In other words, “in the twinkling of an eye,” as the Rapturists often say, millions of born-again Evangelicals will suddenly vanish from the earth—just as they do in LaHaye’s “Left Behind” books. They will leave behind their clothes, their material possessions, and all their friends and family members who have not accepted Christ—and they will join Christ in the Kingdom of God.
Frazier continues. “Jesus taught his disciples that he was going to go away to his father’s house, but that he was not going to abandon them, because while he was gone he was going to prepare for them a suitable dwelling place.… And when the time was right, he would come back to claim his own.… Jesus is going to come and get his bride, which comprises all of us who are born again.
“I have no question that right now, as we stand here, Jesus the son is saying to the father, I want to be with my bride.… In the same way that we wanted to be with our mates … he wants to be with us. He wants us to be with him.”
Frazier is a fiery preacher, and as his voice rises and falls, his listeners respond with cries of “Amen” and “That’s right.”
“I’m going to tell you with zeal and enthusiasm and passion Jesus is coming on the clouds of glory to call us home.… Now, ladies and gentlemen, I want you to know, if you’ve read the ‘Left Behind’ books, [but] more importantly, if you’ve read the Bible, you know … that Christ is coming, and we believe that that day is very, very near.”
For miles around in all directions the fertile Jezreel Valley, known as the breadbasket of Israel, is spread out before us, an endless vista of lush vineyards and orchards growing grapes, oranges, kumquats, peaches, and pears. It is difficult to imagine a more beautiful pastoral panorama.
The sight LaHaye’s followers hope to see here in the near future, however, is anything but bucolic. Their vision is fueled by the book of Revelation, the dark and foreboding messianic prophecy that foresees a gruesome and bloody confrontation between Christ and the armies of the Antichrist at Armageddon.
Addressing the group from the very spot where the conflict is to take place, Frazier turns to Revelation 19, which describes Christ going into battle. “It thrills my heart every time that I read these words,” he says, then begins to read: “‘And I saw heaven standing open.… And there before me was a white horse, whose rider is called Faithful and True. With justice he judges and makes war. His eyes are like blazing fire.’”
Frazier pauses to explain the text. “This doesn’t sound like compassionate Jesus,” he says. “This doesn’t sound like the suffering servant of Isaiah 53. This is the Warrior King. He judges and makes war.”
Frazier returns to the Scripture: “He has a name written on him that no one but he himself knows. He is dressed in a robe that is dipped in blood and his name is the word of God.”
This is the moment the Rapturists eagerly await. The magnitude of death and destruction will make the Holocaust seem trivial. The battle finally begins.
Those who remain on earth are the unsaved, the left behind—many of them dissolute followers of the Antichrist, who is massing his army against Christ. Accompanying Christ into battle are the armies of heaven, riding white horses and dressed in fine linen.
“This is all of us,” Frazier says.
Frazier points out that Christ does not need high-tech weaponry for this conflict. “‘Out of his mouth comes a sharp sword,’ not a bunch of missiles and rockets,” he says.
Once Christ joins the battle, both the Antichrist and the False Prophet are quickly captured and cast alive into a lake of fire burning with brimstone. Huge numbers of the Antichrist’s supporters are slain.
Meanwhile, an angel exhorts Christ, “Thrust in thy sickle, and reap.” And so, Christ, sickle in hand, gathers “the vine of the earth.”
Then, according to Revelation, “the earth was reaped.” These four simple words signify the end of the world as we know it.
Grapes that are “fully ripe”—billions of people who have reached maturity but still reject the grace of God—are now cast “into the great winepress of the wrath of God.” Here we have the origin of the phrase “the grapes of wrath.” In an extraordinarily merciless and brutal act of justice, Christ crushes the so-called grapes of wrath, killing them. Then, Revelation says, blood flows out “of the winepress, even unto the horse bridles, by the space of a thousand and six hundred furlongs.”
With its highly figurative language, Revelation is subject to profoundly differing interpretations. Nevertheless, LaHaye’s followers insist on its literal truth and accuracy, and they have gone to great lengths to calculate exactly what this passage of Revelation means.
As we walk down from the top of the hill of Megiddo, one of them looks out over the Jezreel Valley. “Can you imagine this entire valley filled with blood?” he asks. “That would be a 200-mile-long river of blood, four and a half feet deep. We’ve done the math. That’s the blood of as many as two and a half billion people.”
When this will happen is another question, and the Bible says that “of that day and hour knoweth no man.” Nevertheless, LaHaye’s disciples are certain these events—the End of Days—are imminent. In fact, one of them has especially strong ideas about when they will take place. “Not soon enough,” she says. “Not soon enough.”
If such views sound extraordinary, the people who hold them are decidedly not. For the most part, the people on the tour could pass for a random selection culled from almost any shopping mall in America. There are warm and loving middle-aged couples who hold hands. There is a well-coiffed Texas matron with an Hermès scarf. There’s a ducktailed septuagenarian and a host of post-teen mall rats. There are young singles. One couple even chose this trip for their honeymoon. A big-haired platinum blonde with a white sequined cowboy hat adds a touch of Dallas glamour. There is a computer-security expert, a legal assistant, and a real-estate broker; a construction executive, a retired pastor, a caregiver for the elderly, and a graduate student from Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University. They hail from Peoria, Illinois, and Longview, Texas, as well as San Diego and San Antonio. Most are fans of the “Left Behind” books. Some have attended the Left Behind Prophecy Conference on one of its tours of the U.S.
And while their beliefs may seem astounding to secular Americans, they are not unusual. According to a Time/CNN poll from 2002, 59 percent of Americans believe the events in the book of Revelation will take place. There are as many as 70 million Evangelicals in the U.S.—about 25 percent of the population—attending more than 200,000 evangelical churches. Most of these churches are run by pastors who belong to conservative political organizations that make sure their flocks vote as a hard-right Republican bloc.
A fascination with Revelation, the Rapture, and Christian Zionism has always been a potent, if often unseen, component of the American consciousness. More than three centuries ago, Puritans from John Winthrop to Cotton Mather saw America as a millennial kingdom linked to both the apocalypse and ancient Israel in a divine way that prefigured the Second Coming of Christ. America was to be the New Jerusalem, the Redeemer Nation, a people blessed with divine guidance.
Imagery from the book of Revelation has inspired poets and writers from William Blake and William Butler Yeats to Joan Didion and Bob Dylan. “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” draws references from Revelation. Elements of the book of Revelation—secularized or otherwise—turn up in movies starring Gary Cooper (High Noon), Gregory Peck (The Omen), Clint Eastwood (Pale Rider), and Mimi Rogers (The Rapture), as well as in NBC’s Revelations. Already, there have been two “Left Behind” movies—available mostly on video—and a third is in production. LaHaye’s “Left Behind” series of books, co-authored with Jerry Jenkins, has brought in $650 million to Tyndale House, its now affluent Christian publisher.
On the Internet, raptureready.com put its Rapture Index at 161 in the wake of Hurricane Katrina; anything over 145 means “fasten your seat belts.” A number of Christian Web sites sell clothing emblazoned with Rapture logos. There was even a team of NASCAR drivers, Randy MacDonald and Jimmy Hensley, whose souped-up Chevy proudly displayed “Left Behind” insignia—not the most propitious message for a driver vying for pole position.
For all that, the new wave of Rapturemania is more than just another multi-billion-dollar addition to America’s cultural junk heap. In the 60s, how you felt about the Beatles and Rolling Stones, marijuana and LSD, and civil rights and the Vietnam War told people whose side of American society you were on. Likewise, Jerry Falwell and Tim LaHaye, the pro-life movement and marriage-protection amendment, and the book of Revelation and George W. Bush are equally reliable gauges through which evangelical Christians today can distinguish friend from foe.
As befits the manifesto of a counterculture, the “Left Behind” series is a revenge fantasy, in which right-wing Christians win out over the rational, scientific, modern, post-Enlightenment world. The books represent the apotheosis of a culture that is waging war against liberals, gays, Muslims, Arabs, the U.N., and “militant secularists” of all stripes—whom it accuses of destroying Christian America, murdering millions of unborn children, assaulting the Christian family by promoting promiscuity and homosexuality, and driving Christ out of the public square.
It’s a counterculture that sees Jews as key players in a Christian messianic drama, a premise that has led to a remarkable alliance between Christian Evangelicals and the Israeli right. As a result, political views drawn from an apocalyptic vision—once dismissed as extremist and delusional—have not merely swept mass culture but have shaped the political discourse all the way to Jerusalem and the White House. And if they are taken too seriously, the geopolitical consequences could be catastrophic.
The city of Jerusalem has a profound significance in the traditions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. And to all three religions no place in Jerusalem is more full of apocalyptic and messianic meaning than the Temple Mount—the massive, 144,000-square-meter platform, 32 meters high, built by King Herod as a base for the biggest and most grandiose religious monument in the world, the shining white stone Temple of the Jews.
To Jews, the Temple Mount marks the holy of holies, the sacred core of the Temple, where Jews worshipped for centuries. Beneath it, Orthodox Jews believe, is the foundation stone of the entire world. The Mount is the disputed piece of land over which Cain slew Abel. It is where Abraham took his son, Isaac, when God asked him to sacrifice the boy. At its outer perimeter is the Western Wall, or Wailing Wall, where Jews worship today. And messianic Jews believe the Mount is where the Temple must be rebuilt for the coming Messiah.
To Christians, the Temple is where Jesus threw out the money changers. Its destruction by the Romans in 70 A.D. came to symbolize the birth of Christianity, when a new Temple of Jesus, eternal and divine, replaced the earthly Temple made and destroyed by men.
And to Muslims the Temple Mount’s Dome of the Rock is where Muhammad ascended to heaven nearly 1,400 years ago, making it the third-holiest site in Islam, behind Mecca and Medina.
After its victory over Arab forces in the Six-Day War, in June 1967, Israel briefly seized the Temple Mount, thereby realizing the dream of restoring Judaism’s holiest place to the Jewish people. But Moshe Dayan, the venerated Israeli defense minister who won the battle, soon voluntarily relinquished control of it to the Waqf, a Muslim administrative body.
Over the next generation, some 250,000 mostly Orthodox Jews, citing God’s promise to Abraham in Genesis—”all the land which thou seest, to thee will I give it, and to thy seed for ever”—moved into West Bank territories occupied by Israel after the 1967 war, and vowed to keep the government from giving the land back to the Palestinians.
Since Dayan’s historic decision, Muslim authorities have usually allowed non-Muslims to come to the Temple Mount, as long as they don’t move their lips in ways that suggest they are praying. As a result, the Temple Mount is one of the most explosive tinderboxes on earth. A visit to the site in September 2000 by Ariel Sharon inflamed tensions that soon erupted into the second intifada.
To evangelical Christians, the Mount is an elemental part of messianic theology, because a complete restoration of the nation of Israel, including the rebuilding of the Temple and the reclaiming of Judea and Samaria, is a prerequisite to the Second Coming of Christ. Likewise, to Orthodox Jews, nothing is more important to their messianic vision than reclaiming the Temple Mount and rebuilding the Temple—yet no single event is more likely to provoke a catastrophe.
No one knows this better than Yitshak Fhantich, an independent security, protection, and intelligence consultant who spent 28 years in Israeli intelligence, many as head of the Jewish Department of Shin Bet. From 1992 to 1995, he was the man in charge of investigating right-wing extremists, many of them strongly religious, who posed a threat to the Temple Mount.
“The vast majority of settlers in the West Bank are positive people with sincere religious beliefs,” says Fhantich. “But when you combine religious beliefs with right-wing political views, you have a bomb. The hard core among them will go to any extreme. They are ready to do anything—from killing Yitzhak Rabin to blowing up the mosques at the Temple Mount.”
Indeed, in 1984, Fhantich and his team of 25 Shin Bet members assisted in the arrest of 26 Jewish terrorists for planning to blow up the mosques on the Temple Mount in an attempt to disrupt the peace process with Egypt, and in hopes that the Jews would then rebuild the Temple so that the Messiah would come.
And in 1995, Fhantich personally warned Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin about the danger he faced from militant groups outraged by his agreement, as part of the 1993 Oslo accords, to relinquish the West Bank and Gaza territories to the Palestinians. “I told him, on the hit list, you’re No. 1,” Fhantich says. On November 4, 1995, Rabin was assassinated by a young Orthodox law student named Yigal Amir, whose activities Fhantich had been monitoring for more than a year.
In the 90s, Fhantich says, Israeli intelligence began watching Christian Evangelicals. “As the millennium approached, you had many people waiting for the appearance of Jesus Christ.… And Jerusalem, of course, is the home of the Jerusalem syndrome,” he says, referring to the phenomenon whereby obsessive religious ideas can trigger violent behavior. “If someone believes God told him to do something, you cannot stop him.
“The mosques on the Temple Mount are like the red flag for the bull. You have to be prepared minute by minute. These Christians, they believe what they are doing is sacred. Some of them are so naïve they can be taken advantage of. If something happens to the Temple Mount, I think these American Evangelicals will welcome such an act. After all, religion is the most powerful gun in the world.”
Moreover, a potential attack on the Temple Mount, as disastrous as it would be, pales in comparison to the long-term geopolitical goals of some right-wing religious groups. Orthodox Jews, Christian Evangelicals, and the heroes of the “Left Behind” series share a belief that the land bordered by the Nile and Euphrates Rivers and the Mediterranean Sea and the wilderness of Jordan has been covenanted to Israel by God. Taken to its literal extreme, this belief obliges Israel not only to retain control of Gaza and the West Bank but also to annex all or parts of Egypt, Lebanon, Iraq, and Syria. Such a campaign of conquest would be certain to provoke a spectacular conflict.
The Carter Glass Mansion, in Lynchburg, Virginia, is a handsome manor house that serves as an administrative office for Liberty University and offers a magnificent view of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Inside is the office of Jerry Falwell, chancellor of the university, founding father of the Christian right, and longtime friend and colleague of Tim LaHaye, one of Liberty’s most generous donors.
Recently recovered from a respiratory illness, Falwell, 72, is as serene and self-confident as ever, answering questions with the disarming candor that has enabled him to build personal friendships with even his fiercest ideological foes, from the Reverend Jesse Jackson to pornographer Larry Flynt. Behind his desk is a mounted page from the Palestine Post, dated May 16, 1948, headlined STATE OF ISRAEL IS BORN.
Explaining his affinity for Israel, Falwell says, “Long before I became a political activist, I’d been taught that the Abrahamic Covenant—Genesis 12 and Genesis 15—is still binding, where God told Abraham, ‘I will bless them that bless you and curse them that curse you.’
“It was obvious to me, beginning with the birth of the Israeli state, in 1948, and the Six-Day War, in 1967, that God was bringing his people back home. So I came to believe that it was in America’s best interest to be a friend of Israel.… If America blessed the Jew, Israel in particular, God would bless America.”
The special political relationship between the Israeli right and Evangelicals dates back to 1977, when, after three decades of Labor rule in Israel, Menachem Begin became the first prime minister from the conservative Likud Party. A romantic nationalist and serious biblical scholar, Begin pointedly referred to the lands of the West Bank by their biblical names of Judea and Samaria, and he reached out to American Evangelicals at a time when they were just coming out of a political hibernation that dated back to the Scopes trial of 1925 and Prohibition. “The prime minister said a person who has got the Bible in his home and reads it and believes it cannot be a bad person,” recalls Yechiel Kadishai, a longtime personal aide to Begin. “He said the Evangelicals have to know that we are rooted in this piece of land. There should be an understanding between us and them.” One of the first people Begin sought out was Jerry Falwell, who was achieving national recognition through his growing television ministry.
In 1980, Begin presented Falwell with the prestigious Jabotinsky Award, gave his ministry a private jet, and shared vital state secrets with the televangelist. Begin even called him before bombing Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor, in June 1981. “He said, ‘Tomorrow you’re going to read some strong things about what we are going to do. But our safety is at stake,’” Falwell recalls. “He said, ‘I wanted you, my good friend, to know what we are going to do.’ And, sure enough, they put one down the chimney.”
In the early days of his ministry, Falwell, like other Evangelicals, had made a policy of not mixing religion and politics at all—much less on a global scale. “I had been taught in the seminary that religion and politics don’t mix,” he says. “Conservative theologians were absolutely convinced that the pulpit should be devoted to prayer, preaching, and exclusively to spiritual ministry.
“But in the 60s the U.S. Supreme Court had decided to remove God from the public square, beginning with the school-prayer issue. Then, in 1973, the Supreme Court had ruled 7-to-2 in favor of abortion on demand. And I wondered, ‘What can I do?’”
Several years later, Falwell got a call from Francis Schaeffer. An electrifying Presbyterian evangelist and author, Schaeffer is probably the most important religious figure that secular America has never heard of. Widely regarded by Evangelicals as one of their leading theologians of the 20th century, Schaeffer, who died in 1984, was to the Christian right what Marx was to Marxism, what Freud was to psychoanalysis. “There is no question in my mind that without Francis Schaeffer the religious right would not exist today,” says Falwell. “He was the prophet of the modern-day faith-and-values movement.”
A powerful influence on Falwell, LaHaye, Pat Robertson, and many others, Schaeffer asserted in the wake of Roe v. Wade that Evangelicalism could no longer passively accommodate itself to the decadent values of the secular-humanist world, now that it had sanctioned the murder of unborn babies. Almost single-handedly, he prodded Evangelicals out of the pulpit and into a full-scale cultural war with the secular world. “I was in search of a scriptural way that I, as pastor of a very large church, could address the moral and social issues facing American culture,” Falwell says. “Dr. Schaeffer shattered that world of isolation for me, telling me that, while I was preaching a very clear gospel message, I was avoiding 50 percent of my ministry.… He began teaching me that I had a responsibility to confront the culture where it was failing morally and socially.”
In 1979, Falwell was still “looking for a plan to mobilize people of faith in this country” when Tim LaHaye, then a pastor in San Diego, called him. LaHaye had just founded Californians for Biblical Morality, a coalition of right-wing pastors who fought against gay rights and even sought to ban the fantasy game Dungeons & Dragons in a Glendora community college on the grounds that it was an “occult” game.
When he visited San Diego, Falwell was impressed with how LaHaye had organized the pastors to confront the state government on moral and social issues. “When he told me how he did it, I wondered why we couldn’t do it on a national basis,” says Falwell.
And so, in 1979, Falwell launched the Moral Majority with LaHaye and other leading fundamentalist strategists to lobby for prayer and the teaching of creationism in public schools and against gay rights, abortion, and the Equal Rights Amendment. LaHaye’s wife, Beverly, also entered the fray that year by founding Concerned Women for America, to “bring biblical principles into all levels of public policy” and oppose the “anti-marriage, anti-family, anti-children, anti-man” feminism put forth by the National Organization for Women.
Courtly, genteel, and soft-spoken, LaHaye hardly looks the part of a ferocious right-wing culture warrior. In public or in private, LaHaye is understated, the antithesis of the fire-and-brimstone preacher one might expect to deliver prophecies of the apocalypse and Armageddon. Yet even Falwell has said that LaHaye has done more than anyone to set the agenda for Evangelicalism in the U.S.
LaHaye’s belief in the Rapture dates back to his father’s funeral, in Detroit, when he was just nine years old. “The minister at the funeral said these words: ‘This is not the end of Frank LaHaye,’” he told The Christian Science Monitor. “‘Because he accepted Jesus, the day will come when the Lord will shout from heaven and descend, and the dead in Christ will rise first and then we’ll be caught up together to meet him in the air.’”
Then the pastor pointed to the sky and the sun unexpectedly came out. “All of a sudden, there was hope in my heart I’d see my father again,” LaHaye said.
From then on, LaHaye was entranced with Rapturist theology, which was popularized in the U.S. in the 19th century by a renegade Irish Anglican preacher named John Nelson Darby. A proponent of a prophetic branch of theology known as premillennial dispensationalism, Darby asserted that a series of signs—including wars, immorality, and the return of the Jews to Israel—signal the End of Days. Once the end is nigh, all true believers will be raptured to meet Christ. After that, Darby taught, the world will enter a horrifying seven-year period of Tribulation, during which a charismatic Antichrist will seize power. But in the end, he prophesied, the Antichrist will be vanquished by Christ at Armageddon, and Christ’s 1,000-year reign of peace and justice will begin. This, in brief, is the theology taught by evangelists such as Jerry Falwell, John Hagee, and many others—including Tim LaHaye.
After graduating from the ultra-conservative Bob Jones University, in Greenville, South Carolina, LaHaye began preaching in nearby Pumpkintown at a salary of $15 a week. For 25 years, he served as pastor at Scott Memorial Baptist Church, in San Diego, transforming it from a congregation of 275 into one with 3,000 members.
Along the way, LaHaye avidly read Francis Schaeffer. “Schaeffer taught me the difference between the Renaissance and the Reformation,” he says during the tour of Israel. “And you know what the difference is? The Renaissance was all about the centrality of man. The Reformation was all about clearing up the ways the [Catholic] Church had mucked up Christianity—and getting back to the centrality of God.”
In The Battle for the Mind, his 1980 homage to Schaeffer, LaHaye lays out his worldview far more forcefully than he does in person, depicting America as a Bible-based country under siege by an elite group of secular humanists conspiring to destroy the nuclear family, Christianity itself, and even “the entire world.” There are no shades of gray in this Manichaean tract, which asserts that secular humanism is “not only the world’s greatest evil but, until recently, the most deceptive of all religious philosophies.”
Life, LaHaye argues, has always been a battle between good and evil. “The good way has always been called ‘God’s way,’” he writes, and evil has been the way of man—specifically, the post-Renaissance, post-Enlightenment world of art, science, and reason. And, in his view, nothing man has come up with is worse than secular humanism, which he defines as “a Godless, man-centered philosophy” that rejects traditional values and that has “a particular hatred toward Christianity.”
“LaHaye writes as if there’s a humanist brain trust sitting around reading [American philosopher and educational reformer] John Dewey, trying to figure out ways to destroy Christianity,” says Chip Berlet, a senior analyst with Political Research Associates and the co-author of Right-Wing Populism in America: Too Close for Comfort.
In truth, while tens of millions of Americans might accurately be called secular humanists, very few characterize themselves as members of a humanist movement. But to LaHaye that only proves the deviousness of the humanist project. Instead of openly advocating their point of view, he writes, humanists have used the mass media and Hollywood, the government, academia, and organizations such as the A.C.L.U. and NOW to indoctrinate unsuspecting Christians.
As a result, LaHaye argues, good Evangelicals should no longer think of humanists as harmless citizens who happen not to attend church. In The Battle for the Mind, he spells out his political goals: “We must remove all humanists from public office and replace them with pro-moral political leaders.”
“In LaHaye’s world, there are the godly people who are on their way to the Rapture,” says Berlet. “And the rest of the world is either complicit with the Antichrist or, worse, actively assisting him. If you really believe in End Times, you are constantly looking for agents of Satan.… [And if] political conflicts are rooted in the idea that your opponent is an agent of the Devil, there is no compromise possible. What decent person would compromise with evil? So that removes it from the democratic process.
“Conservative think tanks like the Heritage Foundation want to roll back the New Deal. LaHaye wants to roll back the Enlightenment.”
Like Schaeffer’s writings, LaHaye’s book went largely unnoticed by the secular world, but the Christian right heartily embraced its declaration of war against secularism. Presbyterian televangelist D. James Kennedy hailed The Battle for the Mind as “one of the most important books of our time.” Falwell wrote that all Christians must follow its tenets if America is to be saved from becoming “another Sodom and Gomorrah.”
In 1981, LaHaye took up the challenge, resigning his pastorship to devote himself full-time to building the Christian right. He began by meeting with moneyed ultra-conservatives including Nelson Bunker Hunt, the right-wing oil billionaire from Dallas, and T. Cullen Davis, another wealthy Texas oilman who became a born-again Christian after being acquitted of charges of murdering his wife’s lover and his stepdaughter.
Though still in its infancy, the Moral Majority had more than seven million people on its mailing list and had already played a key role in electing Ronald Reagan president. Beverly LaHaye’s Concerned Women for America was on its way to building a membership of 500,000 people, making her “the most powerful woman in the new religious right,” according to the Houston Chronicle. She and her husband also co-authored a best-selling marriage manual for Christians, The Act of Marriage, full of clinical advice such as the following: “Cunnilingus and fellatio have in recent years been given unwarranted publicity [but] the majority of couples do not regularly use it as a substitute for the beautiful and conventional interaction designed by our Creator to be an intimate expression of love.” And in the mid-80s, LaHaye created the American Coalition for Traditional Values, which played an important role in re-electing Ronald Reagan, in 1984. He later became co-chairman of Jack Kemp’s 1988 presidential campaign but was forced to resign when anti-Catholic statements he had written came to light.
With right-wing groups expanding at such a dizzying pace, LaHaye helped to found the Council for National Policy (C.N.P.) as a low-profile but powerful coalition of billionaire industrialists, fundamentalist preachers, and right-wing tacticians. Funded by Hunt and Davis, among others, the organization set out to create a coherent and disciplined strategy for the New Right.
Though its membership is secret, the rolls have reportedly included Falwell and Pat Robertson; top right-wing political strategists Richard Viguerie, Ralph Reed, and Paul Weyrich; Republican senators Jesse Helms and Lauch Faircloth (both of North Carolina), Don Nickles (Oklahoma), and Trent Lott (Mississippi); and Republican representatives Dick Armey and Tom DeLay (both of Texas). The late Rousas John Rushdoony, the right-wing theologian who hoped to reconfigure the American legal system in accordance with biblical law, was said to be a member, as was John Whitehead of the Rutherford Institute, who was co-counsel to Paula Jones in her lawsuit against Bill Clinton.
“Ronald Reagan, both George Bushes, senators and Cabinet members—you name it. There’s nobody who hasn’t been here at least once,” says Falwell, who confirms that he is a member. “It is a group of four or five hundred of the biggest conservative guns in the country.”
The C.N.P. has access to the highest powers in the land. In 1999, George W. Bush courted evangelical support for his presidential candidacy by giving a speech before the council, the transcript of which remains a highly guarded secret. And since the start of his presidency, Falwell says, the C.N.P. has enjoyed regular access to the Oval Office. “Within the council is a smaller group called the Arlington Group,” says Falwell. “We talk to each other daily and meet in Washington probably twice a month. We often call the White House and talk to Karl Rove while we are meeting. Everyone takes our calls.” According to The Wall Street Journal, two high-ranking Texas judges who spoke to the Arlington Group in October at the suggestion of Karl Rove allegedly assured its members that Supreme Court nominee Harriet Miers would vote to overturn Roe v. Wade.
Sometime in the mid-80s, Tim LaHaye was on an airplane when he noticed that the pilot, who happened to be wearing a wedding ring, was flirting with an attractive flight attendant, who was not. LaHaye asked himself what would happen to the poor unsaved man if the long-awaited Rapture were to transpire at that precise moment.
Soon, LaHaye’s agent dug up Jerry Jenkins, a writer-at-large for the Moody Bible Institute and the author of more than 150 books, many on sports and religion. In exchange for shared billing, Jenkins signed on to do the actual writing of the “Left Behind” series—a multi-volume apocalyptic fantasy thriller composed in the breezy, fast-paced style of airport bodice rippers but based on biblical prophecy.
The first volume, Left Behind, begins with a variation of what LaHaye observed in real life. While piloting his 747 to London’s Heathrow Airport, Captain Rayford Steele decides he’s had just about enough of his wife’s infuriating religiosity. Thanks to Christian influences, she now believes in the Rapture. He puts the plane on autopilot and leaves the cockpit to flirt with a “drop-dead gorgeous” flight attendant named Hattie Durham.
But Hattie advises him that dozens of passengers have suddenly and mysteriously vanished. They have left behind their clothes, eyeglasses, jewelry, even their hearing aids.
The Rapture has come. Millions of Christians who have accepted Christ as their savior—including Rayford Steele’s wife and young son—have been caught up into heaven to meet Him. Left behind are the vast armies of the Antichrist—those ungodly, evolutionist, pro-abortion secular humanists—and a smaller group of people like Steele, who are just beginning to see that Christ is the answer.
So begin the seven years of Tribulation forecast in the book of Revelation. Rayford Steele and his band of Tribulation warriors are mostly ordinary folks right out of the heartland—not unlike the participants in LaHaye and Frazier’s tour of Israel. Doubters no more, they begin to form the Tribulation Force, to take on the armies of the Antichrist and win redemption.
Soon, the Force learns that the Antichrist is none other than Nicolae Carpathia, the dazzlingly charming secretary-general of the United Nations and People magazine’s “Sexiest Man Alive.” Carpathia turns the U.N. into a one-world government with one global currency and one religious order. Try as they might, the Force can’t stop him from killing billions by bombing New York, Los Angeles, London, Washington, D.C., and several other cities, or from establishing himself as dictator and implanting biochips that scar millions of people with the number of the beast.
In fact, Carpathia and his Unity Army seem all but unstoppable until Glorious Appearing, the last volume in the series, when it becomes clear that God has another plan—the Second Coming of Jesus. The battles between the forces of Christ and of the Antichrist begin in Jordan, with Carpathia urging his troops to attack, only to be confronted with the ultimate deus ex machina: “Heaven opened and there, on a white horse, sat Jesus, the Christ, the Son of the living God.… Jesus’ eyes shone with conviction like a flame of fire, and He held His majestic head high.… On His robe at the thigh a name was written: KING OF KINGS AND LORD OF LORDS.”
LaHaye is not the first author to cash in on the apocalypse. Hal Lindsey’s 1970 Christian End Times book, The Late Great Planet Earth, which predicted that the world would come to an end around 1988, was the No. 1 nonfiction best-seller of the 70s. Nevertheless, LaHaye, Jenkins, and their aptly named literary agent, Rick Christian, had a tough time interesting publishers in their concept. Finally, LaHaye’s nonfiction publishing company, Tyndale House, put up $50,000, boasting that it could market the book well enough to sell half a million copies.
Kicking off the series in 1995, as the millennium clock ran down, provided a convenient marketing device. According to The Washington Post, by 2001, 27 million copies of “Left Behind” books had been sold, along with 10 million related products such as postcards and wallpaper. Thanks to the astounding growth of Evangelicalism in America, even the uneventful passing of the millennium failed to dampen sales, which increased so greatly—to a pace of 1.5 million copies a month—that the series, originally planned to be 7 books, was extended to 12. By now, according to BusinessWeek, the “Left Behind” series has brought in more than $650 million to the Illinois-based Tyndale House, the largest privately owned Christian publisher in the country. Not surprisingly, LaHaye has sought to extend his brand with children’s versions, a prequel (The Rising) written with Jenkins, and a new series, “Babylon Rising,” about an Indiana Jones–like hero who uncovers the secrets of biblical prophecies.
When Jerry Falwell reflects on the past 25 years, even he is astounded at how far the Christian right has come. “I was not at all sure in 1979 when I started Moral Majority that we really could make a difference. But I knew we had to try,” he says. “A quarter of a century later, I’m amazed at how a huge nation like America could be so affected and even turned around by the New Testament Church.
“We’re gaining ground every time the sun shines. I don’t think this phenomenon is cresting, because there is a spiritual awakening in America right now.”
When he started out, Falwell recalls, he was thrilled if 35 people came to church and left more than $100 on his offering plate. Today, revenue at his Thomas Road Baptist Church tops $200 million a year—and is likely to exceed $400 million in the near future.
The evangelical market is so big now that mainstream corporate America doesn’t dare ignore it. The Purpose-Driven Life, by California pastor Rick Warren, published in 2002, has already sold 23 million copies, making it the fastest-selling nonfiction book of all time. Now religion is the hottest category in publishing, bringing in more than $3 billion a year. Time Warner, Random House, and HarperCollins have all put together religious imprints. There are more than 2,000 Christian radio stations. Christian music now outsells all classical and jazz releases combined. The EMI Group and Sony BMG Music Entertainment have acquired religious labels.
And the peak is nowhere in sight. “This is just the beginning,” says Tim LaHaye. “Now we have media like we’ve never had before—alternative media, the Internet, and Fox News.”
Throughout America, especially the South, a massive, fully developed subculture has emerged. In Greenville, South Carolina, more than 700 churches serve just 56,000 people. On a highway not far from town, a billboard reads, LET’S MEET ON SUNDAY AT MY HOUSE BEFORE THE GAME. —GOD.
And it’s not about just going to church. There are movie nights for Christians, summer camps for Christian kids, Christian “poker runs,” Christian marriage-counseling sessions, Christian Caribbean vacations, Christian specialty stores, and Christian ministries for singles, seniors, and the divorced.
“It plays exactly the same role in shaping your beliefs that the counterculture of the 60s did for the left,” says a former Evangelical. “Politically, you end up voting for that which reinforces your belief system. How you will appear in the eyes of the God you believe in—that’s your anchor.”
It is an insular world that is almost completely segregated from the secular world, including the mainstream media. “No one in our family read newspapers,” says another former Evangelical, who left her church in Yuba City, California, and eventually moved to New York. “Growing up, our only source of information in my life was the pastor. We believed in what God had told him to say because we were children, and he was our shepherd, and he had been chosen by God.”
A crucial part of that theology dictates a love for Israel, an affection based on faith more than on information. “When I grew up, I did not know Jews walked the face of the earth,” she says. “I thought they lived only in biblical times. They were my brothers and sisters in the Lord, but I didn’t know they still existed.”
That love of Israel is sometimes accompanied by racist hatred of Arabs. On several occasions, an Israeli guide on LaHaye and Frazier’s tour told the group that Arabs “breed like fleas” and would soon be forced into the desert. LaHaye’s followers responded with warm laughter and applause.
From Israel’s point of view, there are many reasons to welcome American Evangelicals, regardless of how well-informed they may be. Tourism is one. Last year, 400,000 Christian tourists visited Israel, where they spent more than $1.4 billion. “During the intifada, loyal Christians still came as tourists. We have to go to the grass roots. It is so important to make them lovers of Israel,” says Benny Elon, Orthodox leader of the right-wing National Union, former tourism minister, and a frequent guest of the Christian Coalition’s in the U.S.
And given that there are more than 10 times as many Evangelicals in America as Jews, it is understandable that Israel might seek their political support. “Israel’s relationship with America can’t be built only on the AIPAC [American Israel Public Affairs Committee] and the 2.5 percent of the population in America who are Jews,” says Elon.
“When Israel enjoys support because it is the land of the Bible, why should we reject that?” adds Uzi Arad, who served as foreign-policy adviser to former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and now heads the Institute for Policy and Strategy, a think tank in Herzliya, Israel. “Whether it is because of expediency or because on some level we may be soulmates, each side offers the other something they want. And the Christian right is a political force to be reckoned with in America.”
But Evangelicals have also played a role in disrupting the peace process. “I was ambassador for four years of the peace process, and the Christian fundamentalists were vehemently opposed to the peace process,” says Itamar Rabinovich, who served as Israeli ambassador to the U.S. between 1993 and 1996, under the Labor governments of Rabin and Shimon Peres. “They believed that the land belonged to Israel as a matter of divine right. So they immediately became part of a campaign by the Israeli right to undermine the peace process.”
No one played that card more forcefully than Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu, who as prime minister used the Christian right to fend off pressure from the Clinton administration to proceed with the peace process.
On a visit to Washington, D.C., in 1998, Netanyahu hooked up with Jerry Falwell at the Mayflower Hotel the night before his scheduled meeting with Clinton.
“I put together 1,000 people or so to meet with Bibi and he spoke to us that night,” recalls Falwell. “It was all planned by Netanyahu as an affront to Mr. Clinton.”
That evening, Falwell promised Netanyahu that he would mobilize pastors all over the country to resist the return of parts of the occupied West Bank territory to the Palestinians. Televangelist John Hagee, who gave $1 million to the United Jewish Appeal the following month, told the crowd that the Jewish return to the Holy Land signaled the “rapidly approaching … final moments of history,” then brought them to a frenzy chanting, “Not one inch!”—a reference to how much of the West Bank should be transferred to Palestinian control.
The next day, Netanyahu met with Clinton at the White House. “Bibi told me later,” Falwell recalls, “that the next morning Bill Clinton said, ‘I know where you were last night.’ The pressure was really on Netanyahu to give away the farm in Israel. It was during the Monica Lewinsky scandal.… Clinton had to save himself, so he terminated the demands [to relinquish West Bank territory] that would have been forthcoming during that meeting, and would have been very bad for Israel.”
In the end, no one played a bigger role in thwarting the prospect for peace than the Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, who rejected a deal with Netanyahu’s successor, Ehud Barak, in 2000. In general, the Christian right has not gone to the mat to fight a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But when the peace process finally resumed during the Bush administration, the Christian right made certain its theology was not ignored. In March 2004, according to The Village Voice, a delegation from the Apostolic Congress, a religious group that believes in the Rapture, met with Elliott Abrams, then the National Security Council’s senior director for Near East and North African affairs, to discuss its concern that Israel’s disengagement from Gaza would violate God’s covenant with Israel. As it happens, Netanyahu, for non-theological reasons, shared the Christian right’s concern about the Gaza pullout to such an extent that he resigned from Sharon’s cabinet last summer and has vowed to challenge him for the prime minister’s post.
But this intrusion of End Times theology is of deep concern to Israelis who are not as hawkish as Netanyahu. “This is incredibly dangerous to Israel,” says Gershom Gorenberg, a Jerusalem-based journalist and the author of The End of Days, a chronicle of messianic Christians and Jews and their struggle with Muslim fundamentalists over the Temple Mount. “They’re not interested in the survival of the State of Israel. They are interested in the Rapture, in bringing to fruition a cosmic myth of the End Times, proving that they are right with one big bang. We are merely actors in their dreams. LaHaye’s vision is that Jews will convert or die and go to hell. If you read his books, he is looking forward to war. He is not an ally in the safety of Israel.”
Far from being a Prince of Peace, the Christ depicted in the “Left Behind” series is a vengeful Messiah—so vengeful that the death and destruction he causes to unconverted Jews, to secularists, to anyone who is not born again, is far, far greater than the crimes committed by the most brutal dictators in human history. When He arrives on the scene in Glorious Appearing, Christ merely has to speak and “men and women, soldiers and horses, seemed to explode where they stood. It was as if the very words of the Lord had superheated their blood, causing it to burst through their veins and skin.” Soon, LaHaye and Jenkins write, tens of thousands of foot soldiers for the Antichrist are dying in the goriest manner imaginable, their internal organs oozing out, “their blood pooling and rising in the unforgiving brightness of the glory of Christ.”
After the initial bloodletting, Nicolae Carpathia gathers his still-vast army, covering hundreds of square miles, and prepares for the conflict at Megiddo. As the battle for Armageddon is about to start, Rayford Steele climbs atop his Hummer to watch Christ harvest the grapes of wrath. Steele looks at the hordes of soldiers assembled by the Antichrist, and “tens of thousands burst open at the words of Jesus.” They scream in pain and die before hitting the ground, their blood pouring forth. Soon, a massive river of blood is flowing throughout the Holy Land. Carpathia and the False Prophet are cast into the eternal lake of fire.
According to LaHaye and Jenkins, it is God’s intent “that the millennium start with a clean slate.” Committing mass murder hundreds of times greater than the Holocaust, the Lord—not the Antichrist, mind you—makes sure that “all unbelievers would soon die.”
One of Steele’s colleagues decides he’ll have to talk to God about what to do next. After all, now that the secular humanists are gone and only believers remain, America is a very, very sparsely populated country. But if enough people are left, he wonders, isn’t this the perfect opportunity “to start rebuilding the country as, finally for real, a Christian nation?”
This is Craig Unger’s second piece for V.F. His article “Saving the Saudis,” from the October 2003 issue, evolved into the best-seller House of Bush, House of Saud (Scribner).
Illustrations by TIM SHEAFFER
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Date: 07 Jul 2010
Date: 21 Aug 2013
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